Mr. Smith asks two 5th-grade students why they don’t have their spelling homework. The girl pauses, eyes cutting up and to the right, before saying she left it on the bus. The boy tilts his head, eyes moving down and to the left, before he explains that his mom was sick the night before and the family had to go to the hospital. So which one is lying, and which telling the truth?
Both. Neither. Either way—contrary to commonly held belief—the direction of eye movement when a person speaks has nothing to do with the truth of what they say. A series of three studies published this afternoon in the open access journal PLoS ONE found no connection between the direction of eye movement and telling a lie.
A team of University of Edinburgh, Scotland researchers led by psychologist Caroline Watt first videotaped 32 college students twice, both lying and telling the truth in relation to hiding a small object in an office. They then asked 64 reviewers to view the videos on both slow and regular speeds, checking for the direction and time of eye movements; they found no differences in either the time or the direction of students’ gaze based on whether the students were telling the truth. Moreover, in a separate related study, reviewers were no more accurate or confident in gauging whether one of the videoed subjects was lying based on their eye movements. In a final study, this time of police videos related to missing persons cases, in which the subject was later shown to be lying or telling the truth, the researchers also found no difference in eye movement between liars and those telling the truth.
Sure, this study is cool—I’d always heard the eyes-right-means-a-lie tip, too—but what how does it affect education, beyond sending teachers back to the drawing board when it comes to judging kids’ homework excuses? The eye movement-lying concept is based on a theory that looking to the left triggers “remembered” events, while looking right accesses “constructed” events, similar to the common misconception that people can be logical or creative based on which brain hemisphere is dominant. It’s one more example of how easy it is for a limited research finding to take hold in practice.
And if you’re wondering, my mother, a teacher, has heard both of these homework excuses, along with about a million variations, some real and some cut from whole cloth. I’d love to see a study matching the lie-detecting skills of your average K-12 classroom teacher against any police inspector or Homeland Security officer. I know who my money’s on.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.